What’s In A (Nick)name?

At the men’s issue blog The Art of Manliness there was an interesting post recently which helped me make sense of two separate phenomena — the ubiquity of nicknames in groups of men and our affectionate use of put-downs — that have puzzled me before.

The post briefly discussed various types of nicknames by introducing the following categorizations:

Referential nicknames are used for well known public figures, i.e. using “The British Bulldog” to refer to Winston Churchill.  

Private nicknames are  generally used between lovers, such as “honey” or “sweetheart”.

Public nicknames are ones given by family or friends, probably very early in life, which are permanent or near-permanent.  

Generic nicknames often pick out a distinguishing feature of a person, like “doc” for a doctor.  

Group nicknames are nicknames which are generally only known about and used in the context of a group.  

The last category were the focus of the post.  Group nicknames, in effect, create an exclusivity by establishing a new group language and a new set of identities for members of the group.  While an outsider may know a man’s group nickname, he probably knows better than to use it for fear of causing offense.  It strikes me that this could be tested empirically, and for all I know maybe it has.

Though group nicknames can sound silly or even derisive to outsiders, they are

boundary-defining and boundary-maintaining mechanisms that draw a line both between who is in a group of men and who is out, and between that group and the outside world.

No evidence was cited supporting the claim that groups of non-males don’t use group nicknames as much as groups of males, but at least in my experience this seems to be true.

The authors point out that this sheds some light on why many group nicknames do start out as mildly (or even extremely) derogatory.  If a man is able to withstand being hazed by the group, it shows a certain level of trust in its members.

If this logic is extended it can also help think about why so much of male-to-male communication consists of insults.  Men are not the most emotionally open of creatures, and habitually greeting another man with  “what’s up motherfucker?” may in fact be a gentle probing for sustained trust and goodwill.  A man who does secretly harbor bad feelings will eventually have a negative reaction to this, and whatever issues are present can potentially be dealt with.

It’s also interesting to think about the apparent exceptions in my case.  I for one nickname almost everyone, but that’s probably an outgrowth of my playful attitude towards words and language.  And my brother and I haven’t regularly put each other down in years.  On reflection, that may have to do with the fact that we live on different continents and don’t ever see each other.  If ribbing and mild derision create bonds in face-to-face communications, maybe the parts of my brain responsible for generating this behavior don’t activate for a relationship that has migrated onto the internet.

One wonders what mechanisms of cohesion, if any, might arise to unite groups formed and maintained predominantly online.

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